A journey...

...to discover...

...the heart...

...and soul...

...of a baker.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ships Ahoy!

Actually, that should be "Shipping Ahoy!" but that's a little clunky, yes? 

One of the things I love most about baking, and teaching myself to be a better baker, is sharing what comes out of my oven with friends and family. I get great joy out of surprising someone with a box of hand pies or a bag of cookies or even a loaf of bread. That's one of the reasons I've hosted my birthday tea for the last twenty years or so. 

Needless to say, it's much easier to do this sharing with local friends because my family is kind of spread out across the country. Sharing with them involves the USPS, FedEx, or UPS. Or flying with boxes of cookies (which I have done). Whatever it costs, though, it's more than worth it to be able to send some of my love to them.

Now, I'm not saying I'm crazy but I am. For the third time since launching this blog, I sent ice cream to my father's house in Florida during the summer. This time was a "just because". We were talking about my ice cream making and mentioned my Golden Double Vanilla (a happy accident) and the Maple Walnut I make. I said I'd send him a sample of something for his evaluation. What he didn't know was that I was planning to send him as many different flavors as I could make in a short amount of time. See? Crazy. 

Originally, I thought I'd make three different flavors but when I saw the size of the insulated box I ordered from Amazon, I figured, what the heck, I'll make it four flavors and five pints total, since I'd have enough room. 2 (two) pints of Golden Double Vanilla, 1 (one) pint of Maple Walnut, 1 (one pint) of Butter Pecan (which used to be a favorite of when I was a kid), and 1 (one) pint of orange sherbet.

Sidebar – What's In A Name Dept.

I've always heard the word spelled "sherbert" and pronounced "sher_burt". Never questioned it. I mean, I'm was a kid, eating a delicious frozen dessert. Why in the world would I question its pronunciation? That would have gotten in the way of the bowl-to-spoon-to-mouth action. As I've found out, though, "sherbet" is the most accepted spelling, with "sherbert" being a simple misspelling of that. Granted, this icy dessert has gone by other names, too: Zerbet, cerbet, shurbet, sherpet, sherbette, and sarbet, among others. Me? I'm not going to worry about it. I'm just going to make it and eat it. Bowl-to-spoon-to mouth.

Sidebar – What's In A Name Dept. Ends

Some pictures of what I sent him:
Golden Double Vanilla
As I mentioned above, this was a happy accident. The recipe I use calls for a half cup, plus two tablespoons, of sugar. I was on auto pilot and used brown sugar instead of white sugar. "Argh! I can't believe I did that!" I said. "Calm down. It'll be fine." Michele said. She was right. It's delicious!

Maple Walnut (and Apple Pie)
This recipe comes from Bi-Rite in San Francisco; it's in the recipe book that Michele got me last year. It's a perfect accompaniment to Apple pie.

Once I'd gotten all the ice cream made, I needed to figure out how to pack it in the shipping box. 

Boxing Day

There's an art to this and I'm still learning it. From how to assure there's adequate airflow, the right amount of frozen gel packs, positioning of the ice cream containers, even how/if to wrap the individual pints themselves. 

Five pints went in, four came out.
I was only partially successful. One of the Golden Double Vanilla pints got turned upside down and the box warmed enough for it to leak out. The rest were somewhat mushy but able to be refrozen, according to my father. And when he was finally able to taste the Maple Walnut and the Butter Pecan, he said they "would not go to waste". 

A Father/Son Exchange Regarding Shipping Ice Cream

Quoth He: "I'll tell you, son. This is a little expensive."
Quoth I: "Well, Daddy, I don't really care. I happen to think you're worth it."
Quoth He: "Okay! I'll call you when it gets here!"

A Father/Son Exchange Regarding Shipping Ice Cream Ends

Next time, though, I'll make sure he comes here to visit so I can serve him the ice cream fresh. Or just fly down there with it.


Two more rounds of shipping involved my brother and his youngest daughter. I sent him a box of ginger-lemon creams, which actually travel pretty well, but she is mad for chocolate (all of his kids are) so I had to come up with something else for her. I initially thought it would be some kind of chocolate cookie with chocolate filling but time was getting away from me so I settled on this chocolate drop cookie recipe from The Food Network. Just the cookie part, though, not the filling.

The cookie is a lot like a brownie in consistency and texture. This meant one to me in this situation: it would possibly be too fragile to ship. Challenge accepted! (See, here we are back to that "crazy" bit.)

The cookies baked up brilliantly.

Dropped Chocolate Brownie-esque Cookies
And immediate proved to me how fragile they were when one of them slid off the cooling rack, fell all of three inches and shattered. 

Okay. The challenge was going to be a little more difficult to overcome. I couldn't just pack them into a box and expect them to arrive in one piece. I needed to figure out a way to cushion them without squeezing them too tightly. After some cogitation, I went with my friend, wax paper. I thought that wrapping each cookie individually...

Wrapped for their protection!
...then packing them into my presentation boxes in such a way that the wax paper absorbed some shock...

Such cute packaging!
...then packing those in a shipping box so that they moved as little as possible but had enough surrounding cushion that would absorb as of the pressure and jostling the USPS was bound to subject it to. And off they went.

Several days later, I got a call from my brother to tell me that he receive his cookies the week before and loved them. And my niece thanked me for her cookies, which arrived mostly intact. There were a few that were broken but she and her sister and brother were singing my praises as the best baker in the world! You know... because chocolate! 

I am an intuitive shipping genius! (Even if I have to say so myself.) And hearing the happiness in their voices makes all of this worthwhile. 

Currently listening to: Mika - Relax, Take It Easy

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Visit, Some Pie and A Lot of Lag

You know how things get when someone you haven't seen in way too many years drops you a line on FaceBook to tell you that she and her husband are going to be in town for a wedding and they have about thirty seconds of free time so you need to make a plan to get together...three months before the visit? Oh, and did I mention that all this coordination had to happen between Paris and here (with a stop-over for them in Iceland)? Right. 

I've known Grace for more than half my life. We met in college when she was a freshman and I was a senior. We've shared more than a few adventures in Texas, L.A. and NYC, and shared many a dinner. I've always enjoyed cooking for her and I was hoping to sandwich in a meal (see what I did there?) with her and her husband within the thirty second time limit we had. It would be tight. Obviously.

They landed, dove right into wedding prep madness, and then made it up to our neighborhood in record time, where we actually did do sandwiches for dinner! Not, however, before we tried to make of for about seven or eight years of missed bear hugs. 

An Unapologetic Side Note

I will not apologize for being so sentimental in this part of the post. Grace is someone whom I love dearly, even though distance and "life" have kept us from communicating more regularly. Reconnecting face-to-face, even for a short time made both of us rather mushy. I'm good with showing that here. If there are any eye-rolls out there, all I can say is: suck it up, buttercup. 

A Unapologetic Side Note Ends

We made short work of some perfect crispy chicken cutlet sandwiches at Vietnaam, and came back here for dessert, which turned out to be apple pie and ice cream. I've been having limited success this summer with my pies, mostly the cherry and peach varieties, but I knew I could bake an outstanding apple pie for Grace and Leon. Turns out I was right.

Apple pie bird!
Bird's eye view of the pie bird!
This one sliced perfectly and tasted delicious, although I was still analyzing the danged thing with every bite. And, of course, I came up with at least two things I'd change the next time I baked an apple pie: a little less lemon, different apples, change up the spices a little. I've been baking them for almost thirty years; you'd think I would have perfected my recipe by now! Sheesh!

Just a slice before I go.
At any rate, it was the absolute right thing to serve my friends. And we all opted to pair it with some of my Golden Double Vanilla ice cream. ("Golden Double Vanilla" you ask? That's a story for the next post.) The only unfortunate thing about this little visit was that they were so jet- and prep-lagged, and I was a tired from a week of baking and ice cream making, and Michele was exhausted from being out of town for work (she got back just before Grace, Leon and I hit the apartment for dessert), that no one thought to take any people pictures! Gah!

Despite that, it was truly wonderful to see my Grace and her Leon, and that they were able to visit with Michele for a bit. Next time, we'll have to get together with them at their place in Paris. 

Currently listening to: Angélique Kidjo - Wombo Lombo

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Of Pies, Contests, and The Will To Not Win

Last month, I did something that I didn't think I'd ever do: entered a pie baking contest. The event, The Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor's Island, holds a "Royal Court of Pie" contest and this year (our second, and last, time attending) I decided to enter. I've said that I'm not very competition-minded with my baking, or anything else for that matter. I bake because I enjoy it. I bake to improve my craft. I bake to make my friends, and the guests at my table, smile. I don't bake for ribbons or even bragging rights. But this year I figured, why not? 

I put a lot of consideration into what kind of pies to bake, balancing what I thought would be interesting for the judges against what was easily transportable. After all, not only was I entering the contest but I was also going to bring enough pie for our party. After discarding several ideas, I went with something out of season – a sweet potato pie – and something that was more summery – a batch of peach-blueberry hand pies. 

Let me be clear: I was nervous but the only way I'd even consider entering the contest was by completely divorcing myself from the idea of winning. If someone liked the pies enough to vote for them, fine. If not, then I'd done something for fun and still had enough to feed my party.

We had to wait until late afternoon before they announced the winners of the contest. There were five categories and prizes ranged from gift certificates to cook books and other such culinary fare.  

A box of bags of pies along with some sweet potato goodness.
Photo by Michele der Beker (She to whom I am married)

I didn't win. Neither did I place or show. I cared a little but the truth is, I didn't bake to "win". I baked to bake. And I'll consider that my portion of success.


We had an exceptionally long and cold winter. I was looking forward to peaches and cherries this summer. Peach-blueberry pies seem to be one of my obsessions this season, so I wanted to make a full pie. Thing is, the peaches this summer, in my area, seem to be dry and kind of tasteless, which is very much unlike last year. 

And Aside Of Minor Importance

The cherries this season are quite watery and also kind of tasteless. I'm more than a little disappointed that the two fruits I most look forward to baking with in the summer are proving inferior. I don't know what I'm going to do about that but it looks like I'll be baking more apple pies....

An Aside Of Minor Importance Ends.

I normally blanch the peaches to peel the skin but these just wouldn't cooperate! If you leave the peaches too long in the boiling water, they cook in a way you don't want them to (and cutting them up is exceedingly difficult). I ended up peeling them with a knife...

Look great! Taste "blah".
Prepped for cooking down.
...and cooking the skins to make a reduction that would help intensify the peach flavor. 

For extra flavor.
It worked. Mostly.

Add those little "blue" flavor bombs!
Of course, adding that much extra liquid, even in a reduction leaves me with my age-old problem of filling consistency. I don't like filling the falls out of the crust the moment you cut it, so I end up adding a thickener, usually corn starch and sometimes flour. Trouble is you can add too much and then the filling becomes the next best thing to mortar. I'm still very much a learning baker, so I'm doing a lot of trial and error with this sort of thing.

Covered...with experimental steam hole cutting, even!
Baked, brown, and beautiful!
When I pulled it out of the oven, I could tell that things weren't going to be to my liking. That little trickle of juice seeping out of the steam vent meant the filling was going to be a bit too watery for my taste.

Pie and home made double-vanilla ice cream. Unbeatable combination!
Yes. A bit too watery for my taste. But the taste? Almost right on the money. I made the right choice about the peach skin reduction; it added just enough flavor to almost completely compensate for the poor quality of the peaches. Michele said she thought it was delicious, so that's good enough for me!

Currently listening to: Amel Larrieux - INI